Assistive technology in the legal profession

06/09/2021

Technology enables law firms, big or small, to bring greater accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities.

assistive technology inclusion

Supporting inclusion at your firm

It should be no surprise to anyone working in the legal profession that the number of individuals who disclose their disabilities when seeking training contracts or employment in it is extremely low. Statistics from our counterparts in the Law Society of England and Wales show that whilst disclosure might be high, c. 25% at university level, it sharply diminishes to c.1-2% when it comes to seeking employment. 

An individual may be born with a disability or may develop one during their lifetime. A disability may be lifelong or temporary – for example, until a broken bone heals. 

As an employer and in the context of running a law firm, you are obliged to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities in compliance with the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015. This means making changes to the tasks and structures of that person’s job or making changes to the workplace environment; which in these Covid times, now extends beyond the four walls of the office to your employees’ homes; to enable that employee to be treated equally to their colleagues, have equal opportunities for promotion and have access to training.

An individual’s disability whenever it arises should not be a barrier to their access to employment; either at the hiring or recruitment stage or when they arrive in the workplace. Nor should it be a barrier, from a client’s perspective, to justice.

With more and more of our workplace interactions taking place online, from the hiring, decision-making stage, to engaging with our colleagues and clients on a daily basis, this is where technology can be harnessed by law firms, big or small, to remove those barriers and bring greater accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities within the profession. To that end, the Technology Committee has gathered a non-exhaustive list below of software/technological solutions that are currently available and which are being implemented within some of Ireland’s law firms.

Available tools

Some solutions as you’ll see are hidden in plain sight in software systems most likely in use in your firm right now. And other solutions which were initially brought in for one or two people in a firm have grown in popularity throughout the entire firm because it was found to increase efficiency! 

The Technology Committee hopes that this list will be developed over time to bring about greater awareness of the technological solutions that are out there and that can be incorporated into your firms’ IT systems. The Committee believe these require minimal infrastructural change or expense; but that can bring about an inclusion by design approach to your firm, be it large or small. 

  1. JAWS - ("Job Access with Speech") is a computer screen reader program for Microsoft Windows that allows blind and visually impaired users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by a refreshable Braille display;
  2. Dolphin - Provides a host of accessibility products for people with sight loss and dyslexia;
  3. Omnipage Ultimate Software - A document conversion and scanning solution for Microsoft® Windows®. OmniPage Ultimate brings accuracy and simplicity to business by converting paper, PDF documents and digital camera images into files users can edit, search and share. Users can convert paper files into natural sounding audio files that can be listened to in the home or office, or while on the go;
  4. Windows 10 Narrator - Reads aloud the text on your PC screen. It also describes events such as notifications and calendar appointments, which lets you use your PC without a display;
  5. Microsoft Accessibility Checker - It finds accessibility problems and lists suggestions, or you can find specific tips for making your content accessible to all. These suggestions are based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 which are a set of recommendations for making Web content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities. The four main principles of the guidelines are that Web content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust;
  6.  Dictation for Microsoft 365 - Dictation lets you use speech-to-text to author content in Office with a microphone and reliable internet connection. Use your voice to quickly create documents, emails, notes, presentations, or even slide notes. 
  7. Dictation for Google Docs;
  8. Microsoft Edge Immersive Reader - Simplifies a web page layout, removes clutter, and lets you customize your reading experience. Immersive Reader is designed to meet the needs of readers with dyslexia and dysgraphia or anyone who wants to make reading on their device easier;
  9. Grammar / Writing Assistance - An intelligent writing assistant. Underlines and highlights spelling and grammar mistakes as well as flagging synonyms.
  10. Dragon Pro Anywhere - A cloud-based Speech Recognition solution that allows business professionals to create high-quality documentation using their voice. Can be used with a speech-mic or a headset with mic;
  11. Dragon Dictate Legal Edition (speech to text) - Enables you to create, edit and format case files, contracts, briefs and more - all by voice - for improved efficiency, reduced transcription time and costs, and faster document turnaround; and
  12. Texthelp Read&Write (text to speech, writing support) - Read&Write for Work is an easy to use toolbar that helps employees with everyday literacy tasks. It allows all staff to work with more confidence, accuracy and efficiency. For those with hidden disabilities (e.g. Dyslexia), ESL or low literacy, Read&Write polishes the skills they already have. It helps them to complete complex tasks and increases their confidence and productivity.

You can search and compare alternative software packages and solutions to all of these listed above here.

Remember, reasonable accommodation doesn’t mean making changes that mean the cost of doing so is excessive or disproportionate. Look into the support and grants provided by the Department of Employment Affairs & Social Protection when assessing the cost of a particular accommodation. A poignant note on the Employers for Change website provides that “Rather than assuming that the costs will be high, it is critical to establish what accommodations are needed, as not all supports require financial outlay. Research shows that most accommodations cost nothing and involve task adjustments.”

With these technological solutions in place across a firm, the hope is that it will make people feel more comfortable disclosing their disabilities at the outset of their employment - and then in turn when people with disabilities are within your employment, their expertise and knowledge in how to improve upon this process will be for the betterment of the profession in the long term. To quote the indomitable deafblind lawyer Haben Girma: “People with disabilities are successful when we develop alternative techniques and our communities choose inclusion

Technology Committee

The Technology Committee aim to update their webpage with a list of suppliers used by the profession and would welcome any feedback on other software currently being used by solicitors.